After 10 terrible days of chills, nausea, a fever of 103 and a headache of such intensity that her nose bled, Aleacia Jenkins knew she had been stricken with the coronavirus even before she tested positive.
So when a friend told her about an obscure California company that was asking for blood donations from people who have recovered from the virus to help researchers develop tests for antibodies, she didn’t hesitate.
“If my blood donation could help save someone’s life who is older or more vulnerable,” said Jenkins, 42, of Shoreline, Washington, “it would be crazy not to want to help do that.”
But what she did not know at the time was that the company, Cantor BioConnect, was selling those donations to laboratories and test manufacturers at sometimes exorbitant prices: from $350 up to $40,000 for a rare sample from a single donor.
Cantor BioConnect said its prices were directly related to the “high costs” of its supply chain, which includes finding donors, testing the samples, safety costs and shipping logistics.
Around the world, scientists are racing to develop and mass-produce reliable antibody tests that public health experts say are a crucial element in ending the coronavirus lockdowns that are causing economic devastation. But that effort is being hamstrung, scientists say, by a shortage of the blood samples containing antibodies to COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, that are needed to validate the tests.
Recognizing a rare opportunity, some companies are seeking to cash in on the shortages, soliciting blood donations and selling samples at rich markups in a practice that has been condemned by medical professionals as, at the very least, unethical.
While the trade is happening worldwide, there is a particular shortage in Britain, which has only a small number of positive COVID-19 blood samples, public health officials said, because it was slow to roll out testing.
Traditionally, blood samples have been provided at low cost by Britain’s largely centralized public health system to labs and clinics. In contrast to the private market in the United States, the British system is not set up to distribute samples to a large network of labs and test manufacturers, leaving many of them now to fend for themselves.
Strict rules govern the collection and use of human samples in the country, banning the payment of donors (past a small expense fee) and prohibiting third parties from making a profit from blood samples sourced from the National Health Service.
But that has not stopped businesses from trying to make a profit by selling blood donated in other countries to Britain and elsewhere, which they can do legally.
Documents, emails and price lists obtained by The New York Times show that Cantor BioConnect is one of several companies throughout the world offering to sell COVID-19 blood samples to labs and test manufacturers at elevated prices. The higher the level of antibodies in the blood, the higher the price.
From March 31 to April 22, prices asked by Cantor BioConnect for its cheapest samples — always sold by the milliliter, the equivalent of less than one-quarter of a teaspoon — rose more than 40%, to $500 from $350. In addition to the $40,000 sample, the company also increased the amount of blood samples for sale for $3,000 and introduced new prices of $1,000 to $2,000 for other “premium” stock.
“I’ve never seen these prices before,” said Dr. Joe Fitchett, medical director of Mologic, one of the British test manufacturers that was offered the blood samples. “It’s money being made from people’s suffering.”
Stymied by the soaring prices, scientists in Britain say they have been forced to turn to personal connections and word-of-mouth to procure the blood donations they need.
Human tissue samples are critical for virologists, medical researchers and pharmaceutical companies trying to develop vaccines, cures, treatments and tests. The samples include things like organs and bones as well as blood.
“Any drug or vaccine or test kit being developed needs to go through trials and tests and validations, and to do that you need to have positive samples,” said Kelly Sapsford, who manages blood collections for Clinical Trials Laboratory Services, a private blood donation center in London. “They’re critical.”
All of the companies mentioned in this article have denied any profiteering.
Cantor BioConnect was founded in 2016 in a San Diego suburb. Its creator, David Cantor, was following in the footsteps of his father in what was then a sleepy business. He said in a statement that he was “proud to be playing a role in the scientific research that will eventually help neutralize this deadly virus.”
Cantor was early to spot a gap in the market. On March 18 of this year, he posted on Facebook, “As you know, the war against coronavirus is currently hampered by lack of testing availability.”
He added, “I’ve been flooded with requests for this blood, and we need to find 50 patients willing to help the cause by donating some tubes of blood.”
Cantor and his employees began contacting coronavirus patients on social media to solicit blood donations. In a since-removed online advertisement, they said they were working “in conjunction” with the White House COVID-19 Task Force and offered $100 for each donation.
Dozens of donations began to flood in from across the United States. Within days, he was shipping out vials of blood to customers across the world.
The greatest demand, Cantor said, came from U.S. labs and antibody test manufacturers. But the company also drew major demand from Japan and Europe, he said, including several “middlemen” in Britain.
Some of Cantor BioConnect’s blood samples are reasonably priced for the U.S. market, industry experts said. But many said that the “premium inventory” price of $3,000 per milliliter was far higher than normal. And they all described the company’s price of $40,000 for a “seroconversion panel” of three blood donations from one patient as exorbitant.
The company said that its overall profit margin on the project was 30% to 40%, which it said was in line with industry norms. It said that the $40,000 price tag was for a “single transaction” of an extremely rare and valuable sample and that it did not track the profit margin of each individual sample sold.
Cantor outlined his costs per sample as the $100 donor fee, a maximum of $200 to ship the donation to his company and payment for a phlebotomist to collect the blood sample.
In response to further questions, he said in a statement that the process of collecting blood from COVID-19-positive donors was “complex” and “extremely difficult and costly” because of safety protocols and the small number of coronavirus cases known when he first started sourcing blood donations.
“There are ways to do things well and safely, and then there are other ways to do them cheaply,” he said, adding that the company had sold samples to “one of the world’s largest test manufacturers,” helping it to “save lives.”
In a final step, Cantor BioConnect relies on a web of middlemen, companies that find buyers for its products around the world. Cantor declined to name his customers or partners, but documents show that Advy Chemical, a major biotech manufacturer in Mumbai, is one of his middlemen.
The Indian company produces diagnostic kits and materials needed to develop tests for various diseases, which it then sells through its worldwide network of customers. It is certified by Germany’s safety regulator and licensed by India’s Food and Drug Administration.
According to emails and price lists reviewed by the Times, in the space of a single day its price for the cheapest blood samples more than doubled, to $950 a milliliter from $350, while “premium” inventory increased to $5,000 from $3,000. The most expensive blood sample was $50,000, an increase of $10,000 over Cantor BioConnect’s.
Advy Chemical said in a statement that the company did not sell any blood samples itself but that it helped facilitate connections for products that other manufacturers might need. It said it had not yet sold any of the Cantor BioConnect samples.
Asked why it had inflated the prices so greatly if it was merely a facilitator, the company cited “strict” nondisclosure agreements and said it would not comment on “business speculation and business specifics.”
The company strongly denied increasing prices by the amounts shown in the emails and price lists.
“Our only intention was to help bring more accurate tests and more quickly,” it said in the statement. “We had hoped this would help humanity, in a small way, in these trying times.”
There is no doubt that market pressures are severe. In Britain, where the cost of a human sample is usually low, scientists and manufacturers were shocked to be quoted $925 for a blood sample by a Scottish company called Tissue Solutions — far higher than the maximum $50 that they said they would normally pay hospitals.
Tissue Solutions’ chief executive, Morag McFarlane, said the company was not making a profit from the samples, which would violate England’s ban on third parties profiting from NHS blood collections.
He said that its higher price was a result of hospital biobanks charging more to collect blood because of the complex nature of gathering potentially contagious COVID-19 samples.
Such explanations, whatever their validity, did not go far with Jenkins, the would-be blood donor. After being told by a reporter how much money was being made from blood donations solicited by Cantor BioConnect, she said she had decided that she wanted “no part of it” and would instead donate her blood to a nonprofit clinic in Seattle.
“Anyone trying to take advantage of a pandemic,” she said, “I think that’s really sad and wrong.”